By now most people have heard of “wearables,” the body-worn Internet-connected devices that perform multiple applications for consumers. Right now the most common of these are wristwatches or wristbands that monitor your vital signs during exercise. One research firm predicts the global market for wearables will grow to more than $30-billion USD by 2018.
But don’t be surprised when you start to hear a lot about a fast-growing subset of wearables called “hearables” — a new class of Internet-connected in-ear devices that provide multiple forms of communication and biometric monitoring with the potential to act as hearing aids or personal sound amplifiers as well. In fact, one well-informed analyst, Nick Hunn, predicts the annual global market for in-ear hearables will grow from zero to more than more than $5 billion by 2018.
The question for the hearing industry will be how well and quickly it can respond to the opportunity.
Geoffrey Cooling, an industry insider and author of the JustAudiologyStuff.com blog, raised a big warning flag for the hearing industry in a recent thoughtful post: “My advice here has always been move with the times or die. I think that we are close to a point where extinction because of rigid adoption of legacy norms is probable.”
You can argue that the digital hearing aid was the world’s first wearable computing product. People have been putting computers in their ears since the introduction of the first digital signal processor chip in the 1980s. Hearing aid manufacturers have been at the cutting edge of innovation in developing sound-processing software integrated with advanced miniature microphone and amplification technologies to deliver amazing benefits to consumers with hearing loss.
The hearing-aid manufacturers have also moved aggressively over the past several years to deliver wireless technologies that link their users to Bluetooth phones, TVs, stereo systems and other audio sources. And of course the “Made for iPhone Hearing Aids” have gotten tremendous attention and placed the hearing companies directly in the smartphone mainstream.
But at the same, time numerous huge consumer electronics companies have started targeting consumers’ ears with constantly improving Bluetooth headsets as well as very-low-cost over-the-counter personal sound amplification products (PSAPs).
These initial “hearables” are sold directly to consumers without the intervention of an audiologist. And while they aren’t designed to compensate for hearing loss, they do encroach on the real estate within consumers’ ear canals that the hearing aid manufacturers used to pretty much have to themselves.
It’s not hard to imagine a consumer electronics company with far more marketing and R&D resources than any of the Big Six hearing aid manufacturers leveraging in-ear expertise with hearables to make a full-scale market entry into the hearing aid business.
The good news for the hearing aid manufacturers is that the leverage can flow in the other direction as well, and the Big Six have plenty of technology resources available to attack consumer markets for hearables. Phonak’s Audeo Perfect Fit earphones were widely admired by audiophiles. And GN Stor Nord owns not only the Big-Six hearing aid company GN ReSound, but also GN NetCom, a leader in business communication headsets and owner of the popular Jabra brand of Bluetooth earpieces.
But Phonak a while ago made a strategic decision to focus less on the consumer audio market and stopped aggressively marketing its Perfect Fit earphones. And GN Stor Nord has made it clear that its two business units — one for the hearing aids sold wholesale through audiologists and other distribution, and the other for consumer and business headphones — are separate, independent profit centers with little formal collaboration on R&D or marketing.
Like a lot of other business, the hearing-aid industry is faced with such rapid technology and market changes that it risks being overwhelmed. Its response to the opportunity presented by the new class of “hearables” will tell us a lot about how well it will fare in keeping its head above the water. Stay tuned.